Gary Rosenblatt’s moving column, “30 Years Later, ‘The Big Rally’ Is Little Remembered” (Nov. 17), reminded us of the historic rally in Washington, D.C., that unified American Jewry on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Despite what I remember to be a freezing day, the electricity of that rally made it a transformative moment — one that eventually would help bring millions of immigrants from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and Israel, and, from a historical perspective, one that would remake the Jewish people.
And yet, the struggle to bring Soviet Jews back into the Jewish fold continues. Only today, those holding back the final victory are not the leaders of the KGB, but the myopic institutions of the State of Israel.
To be sure, the Israeli government played and continues to play an important role in the aliyah and absorption of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And yet, in many instances its approach, characterized by mistrust and suspicion, has hindered, if not brought to a full stop, their integration into Jewish Israeli society.
Especially when it comes to marriage and conversion in Israel. Of the 1.1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are now Israeli citizens, at least 300,000 are classified as “lacking religion.” Despite having made aliyah as Jews under the Law of Return, these people — who we once called our brothers and sisters — cannot get married because their connection to Judaism is through a paternal line. Israel should have opened a civil marriage track years ago to enable these Israelis to marry legally in their new home country.
More importantly, Israel’s leaders should have thrown the doors of conversion wide open the moment they realized they were denying their new citizens basic civil rights. Israel’s official conversion process through the Chief Rabbinate, an arm of the government, is so onerous — insisting on full religious observance and other requirements — that only about 1,600 people manage to convert. It is unconscionable that Israel does not offer a conversion system that allows immigrants to be fully Jewish (as the State of Israel defines it for purposes of marriage). As a result, I am part of a new initiative that is doing what the state should have done two decades ago: converting, in an Orthodox ceremony, hundreds of immigrants so they have full rights of Jews in Israel.
The suspicion of the Israeli rabbinate toward the people for whom we cheered “Let My People Go” extends to those born Jewish. Each year, more than 5,000 immigrants who are halachically Jewish have their wedding licenses stalled until they can “prove” their Jewishness to the satisfaction of rabbinical court judges.
Notwithstanding that these individuals have already “proven” their Jewishness when they made aliyah, they are humiliated in hearings by clerics that for the most part do not understand the cultural or religious milieu from which these people came. Providing original, “authentic” documents two or three generations old has become a sin qua non of getting married in Israel; many young Jews simply say, “forget it.” Unlike North American Jews who can bring letters from rabbis testifying to their Jewishness, the Russians have to bring documents from the time of the Communist regime and, in effect, stand trial in order to be recognized as Jewish. Once upon a time, these people were persecuted for being Jewish; now they are accused of not being Jewish.
The inability to free Soviet Jewry fully from decades of intolerance goes beyond Israel’s unwelcoming approach or broken religious channels. The organization I founded, ITIM, is presently suing Israel’s rabbinate in the state’s Supreme Court for retroactively cancelling the Jewishness of immigrants who were already “proven Jewish.” These immigrants, who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union more than 25 years ago, and were married through the rabbinate, are now discovering that people have “reported them” to the rabbinate. They are now required to appear in rabbinical courts for further investigation.
A Knesset oversight committee recently held a hearing in which it reported that the Population Registry of the Ministry of Interior has begun to investigate the Jewishness of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Israel has a moral responsibility to do better, and it can. The way conversions are handled in Israel should be radically changed — at least for the short term — to enable thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to be married. The approach for “proving Jewishness” must become normalized — at least to the standard of traditional halacha, which assumes that we can trust people. And the “inquisitions,” in which government authorities assume that all immigrants are lying or have forged documents, have to stop. ITIM is working on all these areas, but a serious calling out is in order.
In 1987, I stood alongside my fellow Americans and yelled to the Russians, “1-2-3-4, Open up the iron door, 5-6-7-8, Let my people immigrate.” Today a collective cry should go forth to the State of Israel: “1-2-3-4, You’ve opened up the iron door, 5-6-7-8, Let our people integrate.”
The saga of Soviet Jewry continues in Israel. And we shall overcome.
Seth Farber is the founder and director of ITIM, the leading advocacy organization working to build a Jewish and democratic Israel in which all Jews can lead full Jewish lives.